French Open 2019: Naomi Osaka's roller-coaster win in Round 1 is testament to her growing maturity and mental fortitude

In the first set, Osaka was broken thrice in quick succession, served up a bagel by a player who had not won a match at Roland Garros since 2014. She was not great on movement early on, and missed some easy returns planted firmly at the baseline in the first set. However, she turned it around in the next two sets to mark a memorable win.

Anuradha Santhanam May 29, 2019 12:22:10 IST
French Open 2019: Naomi Osaka's roller-coaster win in Round 1 is testament to her growing maturity and mental fortitude
  • On Tuesday, Osaka came dangerously close to a Round 1 exit in what has so far been her weakest Grand Slam court, the Roland Garros

  • Osaka was broken three times in quick succession and was served a bagel by a player who had not won a match at Roland Garros since 2014

  • For a 21-year-old playing her first Grand Slam as the top seed, Osaka showed a maturity beyond her years

Coming into the French Open this year on the back of two retirements and a third-round exit in Madrid, World No 1 Naomi Osaka was — and for now, still is — gunning to win three Grand Slam titles in a row.

On Tuesday, the Japanese ace came dangerously close to a Round 1 exit in what has so far been her weakest Grand Slam court, and her withdrawal from two clay tournaments this season, each with different injuries, perhaps was a case of pain. As it turned out, her opening match was a battle of nerves.

French Open 2019 Naomi Osakas rollercoaster win in Round 1 is testament to her growing maturity and mental fortitude

File image of Naomi Osaka. AFP

The last time a top seed tumbled in the opening round at the French Open was in 2017, when Angelique Kerber fell to Elina Svitolina in straight sets. On Tuesday, Anna-Karolina Schmiedlova came dangerously close on multiple occasions to send the top-ranked player packing.

Osaka, after the match, said she was not dealing with any pain or injury-related struggles during the match, but felt nervous throughout. And it showed. In the first set, Osaka was broken three times in quick succession, served up a bagel by a player who had not won a match at Roland Garros since 2014. Osaka was not great on movement early on, and missed some easy returns planted firmly at the baseline in the first set.

Out of sorts, the No 1 completely missed the mark in Round 1. She did not look to be in physical pain at that point, but what she did look was frustrated. Missing what would have been easy returns, she was quickly dispatched in the first set by Schmiedlova.

Few people can come back down from a bagel to a commanding position, and on Tuesday's evidence, Osaka is one of those people. Some extremely disciplined tennis from a self-professed emotional player and she was quickly up 3-0, before Schmiedlova reeled her back in to take not one but two breaks of serve. At one point up 6-4 and serving for the match, Schmiedlova — very athletic, powerful and composed throughout the match — frittered away match point with Osaka breaking to stay in the game. And that, perhaps, was where Osaka had, at least mentally, taken back control and with it, the win. With Schmiedlova having missed two chances to close out the match, Osaka was in it by a hair’s breadth.

After a couple of what seemed like sarcastic thumbs up to her box and a conversation with her towel, Osaka was well and truly back in the game, taking the early break in the decider. By the time the third set had rolled around, Osaka, already seeming significantly more athletic than she was in the first set, was chasing down shot after shot, sliding across the court with ease. What Osaka also was in that final set was calm and yet, determined in a way that was reminiscent of Venus Williams.

If someone told you during the first set, or even the second, that Naomi Osaka would win the final set so convincingly, or that there even would be a final set, you probably wouldn’t have believed. But Osaka took control of that final set as if her life depended on it, and leading 4-1, held to love to go up 5-1. The end was somewhat anticlimactic for Schmiedlova, who was broken to love to lose that match.

It was not only a game of skill, and if you were to go by past records, you truly would have expected to see Schmiedlova triumph here. Neither player has ever gone beyond Round 3 at Roland Garros, and if anything, Schmiedlova is the better player on clay, with three of her five WTA finals on that surface. Of those three finals, Schmiedlova won two, both against clay courters — Italy’s Sara Errani and Lara Arruabarrena of Spain.

If clay court prowess were the only measure of the predictor of this match, most would have given it firmly to the Slovak ace. But it wasn’t a battle of skill so much as it was a battle of nerves, the first between Osaka and herself, and the next between her and the player on the other side of the net.

Gathering yourself in a difficult match is one thing; gathering yourself to end with a staggering 10 aces after being bageled, and then almost losing a match in an hour, is entirely another. The Japanese-Haitian ace has never lacked talent — but on Tuesday, what she put on display was something else entirely: her nerves of steel. Coming on the back of two injuries, losses and the pressure of a third Grand Slam and her ranking weighing heavy, Osaka was able not just to pull the match back, but turn it entirely on its head; and it is in her head that the match was won.

The No 1 now faces quite the uphill climb in this tournament. Her next opponent is Victoria Azarenka, who ousted 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in a tough Round 1 battle, and this one won’t be easy for either player. The two have an even record so far at one match apiece, but Osaka took the most recent win between the two, which was incidentally played on clay, at the 2018 Rome Masters.

Whether Osaka wins or loses this match remains to be seen. But for a 21-year-old playing her first Grand Slam as the top seed, she showed a maturity far beyond her years. Maybe there is no way to go above World No 1, at least numerically, but Naomi Osaka has continued to grow beyond the player she is, and has been.

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